Trust is essential to human endeavour. Despite the excuses we use to wriggle out of the obligations that come with it, all relationship or work need trust to survive.
From before birth until our last breath, our lives are an intricate web of interconnectivities and interdependencies; arguably kept alive even after we die through memories and the legacies we leave behind.
In simple terms, trust is an agreement with one another about how we behave. These agreements may be both implicit and explicit, unvoiced as well as constructed. And they change.
One such implicit agreement: parents must feed and shelter a child. While parenting requires much more than just meeting these basic needs, a child’s dependency demonstrates the way in which obligations emerge by virtue of people’s relationship to each other.
This idea extends easily into the social realm. We are pack animals. We cannot escape that. Trust keeps the group functioning, in balance.
Whether we like it or not, relationships trigger accountability, as do decisions, actions.
In many ways, the unarticulated contracts embedded in primary bonds are the most powerful: parent-child, teacher-student, partner-partner. Violate these and the consequences can be dire.
As we grow, our agreements become more explicit. We sign a contract to build a house in a specified time for an agreed price. We deliver a product to a standard. Swear fidelity to the ones we love. We give our word, although not always with the gravity it deserves.
It’s not just the big issues that have an impact. If you agree to collect the dry cleaning, then you must. If you say you’ll post a letter, then do. When we don’t deliver on the little things we erode people’s trust in us over time. We can’t complain that our partner never asks for help if the help that we offer never comes through.
Keeping our word with kids is even more important as we role model what a promise means. If you say you’ll make the school rehearsal, turn up. If you agree to read a book then put your laptop aside. Aside from the disappointment they feel when you don’t follow through, you are teaching that it’s okay to break deals. This compromises your standing with them. What will you say when your child breaks a promise? There cannot be one standard for them and another for you. If you want their respect then that has to be earned.
We can also break trust with our friends when we agree to meet and cancel at the last minute because something better comes up. Although clearly this depends on the situation, many people regard commitments as nothing more than placeholders.
Trust is more than a moral construct, it is physiologically embodied in the brain. We are wired to trust. Assistant Professor at Rutgers Mauricio Delgado says this is reflected in the brain’s neurobiological structure and activity. Some neuroeconomists even believe that our ability to trust and form social connections can be regulated, with the current focus on the role of oxytocin in mediating that sphere (methodological concerns aside). Director of Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Dr Paul Zak even calls oxytocin the “moral molecule“.
Perhaps that is why betrayal has such a visceral effect. It’s physical. It’s real.
Would knowing this help us take ourselves more seriously? If the impact of breaking our word was as visible as the breaking of someone’s bones, would be more cautious with what we said?
While oxytocin may play a critical role in the future in treating behaviour, let’s face it; many wrongdoings are within our control. We can behave in ways that earn and maintain the trust of others and ourselves.
This does not mean that to be trustworthy we have to be perfect. We all make mistakes. Betrayal is about something else. Conscious avoidance. Worse, deliberate harm.
No one mistakenly beats up a child, or accidentally finds themselves in a colleague’s hotel bed when they are away for work. Or furtively (but unintentionally of course) plots a colleague’s demise. This is not a mistake, it is a choice and it is deliberate. Usually it is also a secret and that itself is a sign that it has nothing to do with ‘slipping up’.
For the person whose trust is betrayed, the impact is often life-long. A thousand good acts can turn to dust in the light of betrayal – it goes so deeply against the grain. Because trust is a transfer of goodwill, the willingness to give up our need to know or control an outcome, once it’s broken, it’s almost impossible to get back. The person is always left wondering, waiting for when the next breach will come. That adds anxiety to the chemical soup. And the whole body has to adjust to cope. Health-wise, that cannot be sustained.
And yes, our agreements change. We’re not the same at 60 as 16. And both parties need to keep up their end of the deal. You may promise to be with someone through ‘thick or thin’ but if only one person gives and the other takes, or if ‘thin’ turns into disregard or worse abuse, the agreement must be reviewed.
We all want and need people to trust us. Authenticity is about embodying the qualities that engender it. To do this we should start with the little things. Only make commitments no matter how small if we intend to keep them and then make sure that we do. This is a way of developing good habits, of training our minds.
This is a trust checklist, for checking in on you:
- First, be mindful of the decisions you make, they come with consequences.
- Accept your responsibilities and recognise they are implicit in every relationship you have.
- While you will make mistakes, never pretend a conscious act was anything other than what it was.
- Where you have agreements that are no longer healthy, renegotiate.
- Only make commitments, however small, if you intend to follow through.
- Honour your word. The impact is huge.
We can’t change the world. But we can live with integrity, recognising that the need to trust is not just a matter of ethics, it’s a biological necessity.